Story last updated at 6/27/2012 - 2:07 pm
A couple of summers ago I was on a run up the Lost Lake trail outside of Dyea, a former port town during the Klondike Gold Rush, at the base of the Chilkoot Trail. It was late June. On a steep, heavily forested section of the trail my running partner and I startled a mother grouse, whose brood of new chicks was waddling several feet off the trail. Having had a previous scary encounter with a new mother grouse, that included the hen flying into my friend's head, he picked up a large dead stick. As we advanced along the trail, the grouse flew up wildly at us, squawking at our heads, her talons initiating a quick retreat down trail.
Last week, on a section of the Treadwell trail on Douglas Island, I again found myself in a similar situation. I did not see the bird on the ground; she was immediately flying across the narrow opening in the woods where the ditch and trail had been cleared, her wings frantically flapping a few feet from my head, and those talons...
I retreated down the trail and sat down. I watched the mother grouse attend to her chicks as they ambled through the forest, hoping they might move deeper into the woods or cross the trail and climb up the hillside. Neither occurred. As I sat, two young boys came running down the trail in the opposite direction. They didn't see the grouse, and the grouse didn't fly up at them. I pondered alerting them before they encroached into the area I had just been, and when they passed unscathed, I thought about stopping them to explain that I wasn't some weird woman lurking in the forest, that there was a very real threat just feet from us. I didn't end up saying anything to them.
I grew up running trails in grizzly country farther north, and it's with relief that a move to Juneau came with the removal of a pervasive concern for brown bear run-ins. But did it make sense to harbor more fear over a protective grouse than for an encounter with a bear?
Neither Ryan Scott, the Area Management biologist for northern Southeast Alaska, nor Rick Merizon, a state-wide small game biologist, seemed to think so.
"I wouldn't say they're viscous birds," Merizon said. "Just like any female, they do take measures to protect their brood."
He said the grouse I encountered were likely pulling the "broken wing syndrome," where the mother hen tries to lure away a potential threat to her chicks by flying away from them.
"She tries to make you think she's a tasty meal," said Merizon. "It may seem like she's flying at you to attack you, but it may be a circumstantial, she may have no other escape route."
"I don't know that they're more territorial than other birds. What you saw is a female protecting her young. You saw an instinctual act to drive you away."
Merizon said the grouse in Southeast Alaska are mostly a species called sooty grouse. The sooty grouse were reclassified from the blue grouse designation by the American Ornithological Union about six or seven years ago, based primarily on genetics and some morphological characteristics such as the color of their air sack. A subspecies, spruce grouse, can also be found on Prince of Wales Island.
The grouse begin nesting in May, and have an incubation period of approximately four weeks, said Merizon.
"This is about the first time in the summer, up to a week ago, you can start to see chicks," he said. Merizon went on to explain that the newborn chicks don't fledge, or develop the ability to fly, until mid-June to mid-July, depending on weather and nesting conditions.
"Even after they fledge they're still ungainly," said Merizon. "It's usually not until later in July that they're more able to evade predation and avoid cats and dogs and bicycles."
Which would explain the hen antics I witnessed.
"This is the beginning of that time of year that folks should be aware," said Merizon.
Being aware means reacting appropriately when encountering a grouse.
"People should be able to view those types of animals, but keep your distance and give them the right of way," said Scott. "Let them decide how they're going to move and where they're going to go. Don't crowd them and push them in any one direction." Merizon had similar advice.
"Even though a lot of folks think, 'Ah they're just little birds,' they get stressed just like a moose calf gets stressed," said Merizon. "Give them space to cross the trail, use common sense just like you would with another wild animal."
Merizon also said it's important not to assume that a few isolated chicks have been abandoned.
"There's a high likelihood there's a female close by," he said.
Moving on from encounters - no pun intended - Merizon expressed his interest in the birds.
"Sooty grouse [fascinate] the heck out of me," he said. "Their size and strategy of life. They have elevational movements in the year."
Scott said that grouse can be found from sea level to a couple thousand feet above.
"Just the hoot, that's kind of a neat thing," said Merizon. The "hoot" he's referring to is the sound that male grouse emit, and the reason they're often referred to as "hooters."
He explained that out of all the tetraonids, a family that includes ptarmigan and grouse, the sooty grouse is the largest, averaging 3.5 pounds.
"They rival even a medium-sized duck," said Merizon.
But yet their call is subtler than other birds.
"They're really pretty cool," he said.
And a cool bird deserves as undisturbed an existence as possible.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.